Titanic no longer shameful subject in city of its birth
A book on Belfast port reveals how a whole generation did not talk about the disaster, writes Jerome Reilly
A survivor's account of the night Titanic went down with 1,520 souls was sold earlier this month for stg£20,000, while at the same UK auction, a poster showing the doomed White Star liner and its sister vessel, RMS Olympic, was knocked down at £69,000 to a buyer from Eastern Europe.
Those record prices for memorabilia associated with Titanic are proof of the worldwide fascination with that dark event in the maritime history of these islands.
But in Belfast, the city where Titanic was built, the collective memory of the vessel was shrouded in shame for more than half a century, according to the author of a new book.
Author and journalist Alf McCreary has written a compelling account of the history of Belfast port, and the role the city played in building the world's most famous ship.
He hopes the book, Titanic Port -- an updated history of Belfast Harbour Commissioners and the Port of Belfast -- will shed new light, not just on the docks and ship building, but on the men and women who helped create a great maritime heritage.
"It's a missing link in the history of Belfast. The work of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners in digging out the channel helped create the city we know today," said Alf.
"If they hadn't reclaimed the land, if they hadn't rebuilt the wharves and leased the land to Harland & Wolff, then the Titanic would never have been built, nor the Olympic nor the Canberra.
"They just decided to cut out the channel. In those days there were no environmental groups, no consultants. They were Victorians and they just did it. In many respects you have to remember that the Titanic was forgotten about for 80 years. When she went down in 1912, Belfast was the third biggest city in the Empire, bigger than Dublin.
"There are reasons why the Titanic wasn't really talked about in Belfast. These were turbulent times. In 1912 the Titanic went down, but just two years later, in 1914, the war began. In 1916 there was the Battle of the Somme and the Rebellion in Dublin, and then partition in 1921. Then there was the depression, and the Second World War began thereafter.
"There was an entire generation who knew nothing but disaster. They didn't talk about Titanic. It was like a death in the family. There was a sense that it was their fault -- which was most illogical because the Titanic's sister ship, Olympic, went on for 36 years."
Alf spent three years researching the history of Belfast Port, and the result is a sumptuously illustrated book written with a journalist's eye for the fascinating human stories that pepper Belfast's history.
"There were two things that helped resurrect the memory of the Titanic. The first was the discovery of the wreck by Robert Ballard, and the second was James Cameron's film," he said. "All of a sudden there was a realisation in the city that built the ship that the memory of the Titanic should be cherished, and that she was a symbol of the city's excellence in engineering and its can-do spirit."
Alf suggests that, during its shipbuilding heyday, Belfast was the Silicon Valley of Europe -- a place where great technological and engineering advances were made.
"I hope the book brings back the best memories of the Titanic, not as a ship that sank to the bottom of the ocean but as a potent legacy of Belfast's engineering and technological skills and the strength of character of the men who created a great port," he said.
Alf deliberately sought out the human stories related to the port, and there are cameo appearances by playwrights, including Martin Lynch, and the poet John Campbell.
Another legendary character, "Buck Alec" Robinson, came from the enclave of Sailortown near the docks. He was a renowned street fighter, loyalist and criminal who at one time kept three lions.
"So it's not just a story about ships but about people," Alf said. "There were great families involved in building ships. The Connell family, who have relatives in Dublin, was one of those families. Charles Connell built the first passenger steam ship in Belfast, the SS Aurora, launched in 1847."
The port area of Belfast is undergoing something of a rebirth, with a stg£250m property redevelopment proposed for Clarendon Dock.
The City Quays project proposed by Belfast Harbour will link the city centre with the Titanic Quarter project.
Belfast Harbour chairman Len O'Hagan said, "The aim is to help regenerate and reinvigorate the heart of historic Belfast, providing an attractive setting for potential overseas investors."